When you think of pop music's elder stateswomen, a few obvious names come to mind: Madonna, Cher, Diana Ross. But though she's racked up 40 number one hits, scores of awards, and even been voted the "Queen of Pop" during her nearly four-decade career, Janet Jackson is often left off the list of royalty. Maybe she was overshadowed by her megasuperstar brother, Michael Jackson. Maybe it's by design, an intended consequence of her penchant for the kind of privacy she was seldom afforded in her youth. Either way, Janet Jackson has evaded the kind of ubiquity that other artists of her caliber have accepted as a trade-off for their superhuman talent and charisma.
But don't sleep Miss Jackson's tour stop at the BB&T Center. To overlook her is to overlook one of music's most influential artists. Thirty years ago, she released the ultimate proto-pop-feminist manifesto — her album Control — and laid out the blueprint for how every pop star to come would emerge from the shadows of creatively limiting forces.
Madonna, Jackson's contemporary, tends to get most of the credit for her influence on the superstars who followed, and it's not difficult to see why. Even today, in an era when Beyoncé and Rihanna have outlasted all of their pop counterparts (with the exception of Taylor Swift), black women are rarely marketed as pop acts by the suits at record companies. A recent LA Times profile noted the struggles of black female musicians such as Jhene Aiko, Kehlani, and Tinashe, who find themselves pigeonholed to "urban" or "R&B" genre descriptions because label heads are incapable of envisioning their pop potential, even as Tinashe, for example, has toured with the likes of Katy Perry and collaborated with Britney Spears. Music critics, like label executives, tend to compare female musicians to other female musicians who look like them, and because pop stars have been overwhelmingly white, Madonna gets most of the praise as their vanguard.
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But even a superficial glimpse at the work of the women who came after Jackson reveals how closely they followed in her footsteps. Years before Britney Spears donned her "Like a Virgin" wedding dress and kissed Madonna at the VMAs, she ripped her chair-dance routine straight from Jackson's "Pleasure Principle" video.
Beyond stylistic influences, Jackson's career, and especially her Control album, became the template for later singers' rebellion against a variety of overbearing creative restraints. The album was a direct affront to Jackson's father's iron grip over her musical career. Joe Jackson is infamous for having cultivated the greatest entertainment family dynasty in music history, the Jacksons, but his ruthless drive as talent manager for his children came at the cost of alleged emotional and even physical abuse, according to his most famous and deeply troubled son, Michael.
Growing up at a time when her older brothers were already certified superstars with a fevered level of fame rivaled at the time only by the Beatles, Janet Jackson seemed destined to live in the shadow of her siblings, especially Michael. She entered the entertainment world as a child actress at first, making her initial TV appearances on the variety show The Jacksons and becoming a star in her own right via her role on Good Times in 1977. Capitalizing on her TV success, she released her debut, self-titled album in 1982 and followed it with Dream Street two years later. Both albums were modestly successful but did not make an impact on pop culture in the way her brothers' work had.
After Dream Street, Jackson fired her father as her manager and hired producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, with whom she partnered to trade the teen-pop balladry of her first two albums for the abrasive, electronic, in-your-face sexuality of Control. Sweet Penny from Good Times was gone, and in her place stood Miss Jackson, smiling only when she felt like it, spurning street harassers on "Nasty," and moaning suggestively on the album's closing track, "Funny How Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)."
Beyoncé used Jackson's tactics when she fired her father as her manager and took the reins of her career before the release of her album 4. Christina Aguilera's sophomore album, Stripped, could hardly part with comparisons to Madonna because of the sexually explicit music videos that accompanied it, but the album's confrontational ethos and rejection of record-label expectations once again owes more to Jackson than critics noted. And when Rihanna vowed not to be defined by her domestic assault by making music that would eclipse the public's memory of the events, she adopted Jackson's template and became the irreverent, brash, unapologetic star she is today — RiRi if you're nasty.
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Jackson is back on the road for her State of the World Tour, in support of her latest album, Unbreakable. After postponing the tour due to the birth of her first child, she updated the new leg of the tour to tackle themes of white supremacy, police brutality, and the rise of the alt-right. Following yet another career hiatus, she is once again back in the public consciousness on her own terms. Meanwhile, Katy Perry has been performing the Control track "What Have You Done for Me Lately" on her Witness Tour this year, and SZA's Ctrl is a clear nod to the album in both name and spirit.
Surfacing and disappearing at will, Jackson knows how to wield her fame. But her ability to step in and out of the spotlight doesn't minimize the tremendous influence she's had over the women for whom she kicked the doors wide open. In fact, it might be her most lasting legacy.